24 May 2013

The Great Gatsby

I read The Great Gatsby twice. The first time was in high school, and I HATED it. Mostly because we spent all of class time on plot summaries and beating the green light symbolism into the ground. I re-read the book in grad school (I think mostly because my friend Dunx said it was an amazing book and I figured I needed to give it another try) and realized, actually, yes, it is a phenomenal book. But that first experience made me aware of just how easy it is to ruin an excellent work of literature. And if you love the book and can't imagine how it could ever be ruined - go see Baz Luhrmann's movie version.

There are so many things to hate about the movie. First off, it's long. IT IS SO LONG. It's poorly paced and the story is poorly adapted, and it goes on and on and on. Second off, the music. I was also prepared to be annoyed by this thanks to Moulin Rouge, but I was also ready to give it the benefit of the doubt. But no. Just no. You wanna do hip hop, fine, do hip hop (though personally, much as I enjoy Jay-Z, does he have to do every soundtrack of every major movie?). But don't do some watered down, loungey bullshit mishmash. "You know what I really hate about the Roaring 20s? The music." said no one, ever. There was some vague attempt, perhaps, to combine hip hop and the music of the time, but it was a colossal failure as far as I'm concerned. Third off, the party scenes. Baz Luhrmann, for goddsakes that's what you're supposed to be good at? These were so totally bland and unexciting. And there were SO many of them, and they went on for SO long. Fourth, the characters. Especially Daisy. She spends most of the movie looking distraught, lip quivering. I don't blame Carey Mulligan for this (I loved An Education so much that I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt), I blame the script and the directing. She lacks Daisy's petulance, her charm, and her toughness. She is bland. Tobey Maguire isn't particularly persuasive as Nick either - he's just affable and kind of there. Leonardo DiCaprio is probably the best thing about this movie - he's actually fairly spot on for the role, so long as you can forgive him for saying old sport every 20 seconds. I couldn't quite forgive him for it, myself. Which brings me to the fifth, the green light. I was deliberating which was more annoying, the constant refrain of old sport or the goddamn green light. Jury is still out.

But what really screwed with me is the racial dynamic of the film. Apparently the only thing the internet has seen fit to complain about is the Jewish villain. To be honest, I didn't notice that aspect as much. What I did notice was the weird, weird way blackness came up in the movie. Or rather, the first half of the movie, because in the second half, there's only one moment with black characters, and the point there seems to be that Baz wants you to appreciate the fact that he DIDN'T have them sing a spiritual when he totally could have. And it wasn't easy for him. You can tell. They are so very very close to busting one out, they're clustered around and even kind of humming, but he showed ADMIRABLE RESTRAINT you guys. No, I'm talking about the first half, where, as some commentators have noticed, you see lots of black people! Which apparently contented some critics, who were pleased that the movie wasn't whitewashed. I appreciate that sentiment. But there's something really odd about all these loving shots of black servants, and black men digging. But ok, maybe the point is to highlight how the wealth of these white folks is built on the back of black labor. Fair enough. And then the characters are slumming by having this secret apartment for their debauchery, and when they look out the window into the other apartments they see that there's all kinds of debauchery going on! Because this is a BLACK neighborhood! See, there's a trumpeter on the fire escape playing the soundtrack. In one apartment, there's even an interracial affair. Very taboo. Because... that's what black neighborhoods are like? Full of... life? Ok, moving on, we have Tom spouting his racist rant at the beginning, about how the black folk need to be kept down before they take over, and that's how we know he's a bad guy. Fine.

Except that meanwhile, the movie is using a hip hop soundtrack, apparently with the idea that hip hop is today's version of the conspicuous consumption culture that these white people are reveling in. In order to hammer that in, one of the more blatantly racist lines in the book - "a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry" (55) - is brought to life in the movie by having the "3 modish Negroes" portrayed in a tableau that obviously reference the Notorious B.I.G. So in the book we have Nick, amused by the idea that blacks could ever compete with whites, and racist Tom paranoid that in fact, they will. And in the movie, we have Baz Luhrmann telling us that in fact, that's exactly what happened! Black folks are the new rich people! How wacky is that?!?
Am I reading too much into it? Maybe. But watching the movie, I was repeatedly puzzled by the weird undertexts of blackness in the film. I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what was bothering me, and that's what I've come up with so far. I'd tell you to go see it and come back and tell me what you thought, but honestly, I don't think it's worth subjecting yourself to the film for. Read the book instead. It costs less, and probably takes about as much time as you'd spend on getting to and from the theatre and sitting through the movie. And it's actually really, really good.

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